Switching Off


If you have a friend who annoys you, you can think about it after he/she is gone, and annoy yourself a second time. The problem with thinking about your annoying friend is that no resolution comes of it. At the end, your friend will still be annoying, and you have effectively been annoyed twice. The only solution is get another friend about whom you do like to think. Then you simply think of the first friend less.

Similarly, you might have some mental habits that simply don’t work right. You might think that you need to discover their psychological origins, but that does not provide you with an alternative way of thinking, which is what you need in order to abandon the first way of thinking.

There are a number of mental tricks to use to break your bad habits. Switching off is the most important skill — catching yourself doing it and forcing yourself to think about something else. In the first example, that of having an annoying friend, the solution is to think of a better friend, and thinking about even an imaginary friend is preferable to thinking about a friend who annoys you.

Obviously, ignoring a problem does not make it go away. But similarly, annoying yourself with a problem does not make it go away. People do annoy themselves and you need to recognize when you’re doing it.

You need a small repertoire of things to think about, until you have the discipline to simply stop by thought command alone. The important thing is to choose something, and get it started now so it is available when you get into trouble.

Safe Space

Sometimes you just need a break. You cannot be stressed or annoyed every waking hour and expect to be fresh and prepared to deal with your problems.

The first and most basic trick is a fantasy environment where everything is set up according to your preferences. The typical example of a safe space is your dream house. Imagine a floor plan, and then populate the rooms with furniture. It will take months in order to come up with all the details. The most important thing is the amount of detail because the details are what distracts.

Whenever you are under long-term stress, you can retreat to this space occasionally. There is nothing there to annoy you or threaten you, by definition, so any sense of ill-being is unprovoked and inappropriate. You can have all that back when you return to the outside world.

Other scenarios involve you in another period of history, you as a king or queen. You can be a science fiction hero who always does the right thing and escapes every danger, like in a Hollywood movie. It can be anything that makes you feel comfortable or confident. Just make sure that you know how many buttons are on your trousers and where each electrical outlet is in your house.

Your safe space is something you must set up before you get stressed. You must have the habit of thinking about it calmly, so that when you start thinking about it under duress, you will inherit the calm by association.

Your safe space can also be used as a launching pad for other experiences. You inherit the calm of your safe space, and then you may face your next challenge from a balanced position.

Alternate Outcomes

When people face problematic situations, they have the tendency to ruminate: to rehearse the problematic aspects, with the vague hope that one run-through will end acceptably. Most often, they just rehearse the details.

The more effective way of going about it is to imagine the outcomes first. Start with the one you prefer most, and work backwards to see whether there is some reconfiguration of history that might lead to it.

Anyone can see the past more clearly than the present, so why not jump to the future? For example, if your child is doing poorly at school and is facing a life of crime or politics, do not focus on the bad reports he/she is getting. Imagine a future in which your child has become an architect. You are twenty years in the future and laughing about the poor reports and he/she tells you, “You know, it all started when we built that tree-house together, and I found something that interested me and that I could feel good about.”

By ruminating over a current problem, you are most likely to rehearse the details, and thereby make them appear more inevitable. The reason is that you are looking into the past and seeing how events (inevitably) led to your current situation. The solution is to jump to the future and do the same thing, but to your liking.

Once you have a agreeable reconstruction of the past, you must next convince yourself that the current you is more likely to have taken the agreeable path than the past you. Then you are done. There are two or more possible time-lines associated with you, and one of them is more tightly connected to the current you.

Work on What You Want

The strangest thing that people do is to work against their own interests and goals, for the sake of rectitude. For example, if some Karen is getting cranky with you, the most appropriate response might feel like showing that you are more cranky. It feels like the math is cranky minus cranky equals 0 cranky, but that is simply not what anyone observes. The math is rather, cranky plus cranky equals 2 cranky. You wanted zero cranky, but you got twice as much instead. Karens already believe that they are living in a hostile environment. That’s why they are cranky in the first place. You may only confirm or fail to confirm that.

If you were hurt because previous partners couldn’t commit to you, your solution might be to not commit to new partners. It sounds crazy to say it like that, but people do it. They relive past disappointments until they seem like the most likely outcome. Think of it as practice. Athletes who practice jumping get better at jumping, and they are faster to think of it as a solution when approaching an obstacle.

Of course, the crazier you are, the harder it is to find a partner to whom you’d want to commit. The solution is obviously to make yourself the kind of person to whom at least you would want to commit. Your previous frustration is not relevant to that project, so there is no point in revisiting it.

This cannot be said enough: there are thoughts not worth working on, ever. There are thoughts not worth working on at certain times. Your well-being is always worth working on.

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